Turkey Refuses to Protect Its Women — and What That Means for the World
Her eyes were nearly as dark as her abaya, large and filled with tears. She was young, not much more than 30, with dark hair, uncovered, that tumbled loosely down her back. A man’s hand wrapped around her throat, pinning her against a car parked at the curb; and I watched, on a busy street in Istanbul, as other men surrounded the man and woman, ordering him to stop, to let her go.
Instead, he raised his free hand and slapped her in the face.
Beside me, a younger man stood with a cell phone in one hand. “Polis?” I said, “police?” and gestured for him to call. But he only looked at me and smiled sadly, with a shrug that told me all I had to know: the police wouldn’t be of any help. They never were with things like this.
A young man pushed his way between the woman and her assailant, guarding her from his blows, and she dropped down to her knees to kiss his feet. Yet in only seconds, her attacker — was he her husband? Her father? — pulled her up again, again pressing one hand around her neck.
“Syrians,” a woman nearby explained to me in English. “Religious people.” I stared, speechless, as the man forced this woman, this young woman with the pleading eyes, into the car. He stepped into the driver’s seat, and the two of them sped away.
That woman’s face still haunts me now, years later — beautiful, desperate, doomed. She was but one of several million women who experience domestic abuse in Turkey, a country where experts say three women are murdered every day.
Now their president has turned his back on all of them.
Last month, in a decree issued at 2:00 on a Saturday morning, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, known officially as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The treaty requires signatories to criminalize “all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
Ironically, it was Turkey that first ratified the treaty in 2012, which the Council of Europe calls “the gold standard in international efforts to protect women and girls from the violence they face every day in our societies,” and which has been adopted by 34 countries.
The Council of Europe swiftly condemned Erdogan’s move, which President Biden denounced as a “step backward for the international movement to end violence against women globally.”
But Erdogan’s minions argue otherwise, claiming that there are plenty of other laws in place to protect women — but that the treaty itself had been “hijacked” by people attempting to normalize homosexuality,” which is “incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.”
But homosexuality has nothing to do with it. Nor, really, does an effort to appeal to Erdogan’s base, as many of his critics argue. While it is true that Turkey’s president is slipping in the polls, the next election isn’t until 2023 and it is not his usual way to appeal to voters so far in advance. Rather, like other misogynistic rulers across the region, Erdogan’s retreat from the Istanbul Convention is more a move toward further Islamizing the secular republic, turning it away from the Western, Enlightenment vision of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and closer to the Islamist, Sharia-based theocracies of the Middle East.
What’s more, studies have shown a reciprocal relationship between radical conservatism and the oppression of women — albeit cloaked in the disarming concept of “traditional family values.” Countries where women are more oppressed tend to be more violent, less stable, and so, more easily led by autocrats; countries that are unstable and autocratic tend to be more likely to oppress women.
And radical conservatism is exactly where Erdogan is steering the Turkish republic. Since taking power in 2003, he has built more than 17,000 new mosques, with several thousand more abroad; restricted the sales of alcohol; Islamized the public school curriculum; and heralded a “new pious generation.” Throughout, he has pandered to conservative, Islamist views of the role of women, rejecting the idea that men and women should be considered equal, and calling on Turkish women to bear “at least” three children.
“Our religion has defined a position for women: motherhood,” he said at a 2014 summit on justice for women. “You cannot put men and women on equal footing. It is against nature.”
Meantime, in the years Erdogan has been in power, the number of women murdered has risen sharply, women’s rights groups say. The perpetrators of domestic violence are rarely prosecuted, or receive light sentences which are often reduced for “good behavior,” according to The New York Times.
Notably, while researchers and organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have correctly linked such misogyny to right wing extremism, little notice has been made of its inherent connection with Islamist extremism. Indeed, if misogyny is the “gateway drug” into white supremacy, as some argue, it also is a “gateway” into radical Islam. It opens into a seductive fantasy world that frequently keeps followers captivated by a radicalized world they become unwilling to leave.
This, arguably, is behind Erdogan’s real strategy in leaving the Istanbul Convention — to transform the fundamental nature of Turkey.
It has been nearly a decade since I saw that woman on the street in Istanbul; but I often think of her. I hope she is protected and safe.
And I hope the future of Ataturk’s secular republic will be, as well.
Abigail R. Esman is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. She is the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West( Praeger, 2010). Her new book, Rage: Narcissism, Patriarchy, and the Culture of Terrorism, was published by Potomac Books in October 2020. Follow her at @radicalstates.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.